From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. This week, who want some Wang? What? Nobody? Dang.
How do you follow a hit game like Duke Nukem 3D? Obviously, you scale everything up. People liked interactivity! More interactivity! Vehicles! Pachinko machines! RC cars! Everyone enjoyed the real world locations? There would be more! Streets! Towns! Restaurants! People made a fuss about the sexism! Hah! This time, we'll try comedy racism instead! What could possibly go wrong? Right?
I really hate Shadow Warrior, though I can't really say it's a bad game. It's aged spectacularly poorly, even worse than Duke Nukem 3D, though for its time it was actually pretty good. It's just one of those games that instantly rubbed me the wrong way, with sandpaper, right from the introduction of its character—a ninja called Lo Wang, because Japanese and Chinese people are basically the same, right? It's not even the game's pathetic comedy racism that annoys me so much as the fact it was obviously dumped onto the game because of Duke's success, turning a perfectly solid, polished shooter into one that only seems interested in getting a reaction by acting like a masturbating chimp.
The plot—what little there is—is that Lo Wang is a former assassin trying to take down an evil corporation run by a fiend called Master Zilla, along with his army of zombies, suicidal coolies (yes, the game calls them that), killer ape things and giant snake monsters. What made it an interesting game for its time though was that after Duke, the team was much more accomplished with the Build engine—and Shadow Warrior was the game that really put it through its paces, for better and worse.
One of the early puzzles involved driving a remote-controlled car to get a key (a puzzle repeated at the start of Duke Nukem Forever with a fuel cell and more physics). Very occasionally, you got to jump into a bulldozer or similar engine and find out why most games of this era avoided letting you jump into vehicles. The levels were full of incidental details, like rabbits bouncing around your Master's temple that would get it on if they got close enough. There were even some genuinely impressive bits of technology/design for the time, like a (completely faked) portal system, voxel based 3D objects, and real-world pop-culture artwork scattered around from before anime/manga became a big deal in the West.
Like many shareware games, the majority of the memorable stuff was in the first episode—just four levels. The full version added 18 more, plus extra enemies and weapons, and all the other usual details, but while I have played it... none of it stuck. Some of the things that surrounded the game however did. For starters, in the UK, Shadow Warrior was one of the Great Censorship Blunders. For some reason, the government was terrified of things like imported Asian weapons back then, so they were an automatic no-no. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. Weapons like nunchucku were right up there with headbutts on the list of unacceptably violent things. As for Shadow Warrior, it was an 18-rated game and allowed to keep most of its ninja toys, including the default katana and caltrops and machine-guns, but forced to remove its shuriken weapon in favour of...
wait for it
...darts. Yes, darts. Regular darts. Because it doesn't hurt to get hit in the face with a fistful of darts. Not at all. And they're so much harder to find in England than imported throwing stars. Thanks, BBFC! Don't know how we'd ever have survived through the 90s without your vigilance!
(Not that England had a monopoly on this stupidity. There was another Build game released around the same time as Shadow Warrior called, simply, "Blood". It was a horror-themed shooter, and again, the shareware episode was the best bit. It was however sold in stores, and as often happened, Wal-Mart and possibly a few other places insisted on their own, family friendly version without the gore. In short, they happily agreed to sell a game called Blood, but only if it didn't have any blood in it.)
Now things get really strange. What do you do when you have a racist main character, comedy racism or not, in a stupid world where putting a 'Titsubishi' sticker on a bulldozer counts as a joke? What's that? You commission a novel based on it? Don't be stupid. You turn his direlogue into a song.
Oh, and then you commission two novels.
Game novels are rarely done well. Nevertheless, there were two of them for Shadow Warrior—You Only Die Twice and For Dead Eyes Only. They're both long out of print, of course, but still available if you're willing to wait about a month for delivery. I considered this a while ago, as a complement to the Doom novels, but decided that I'd rather read Baldur's Gate 2 again.
Luckily, you don't have to buy the book to get a flavour of this great work:
"Looks like chicken," Lo Wang said, turning the hunk of nose around in front of the man. "Chicken a favorite of mine." Wang smiled, spun the hunk of nose around slowly in his fingers, licking his lips, then tossed the nose over his shoulder so that it landed near the business men behind the bar. They could keep it as a souvenir of their lunch. Maybe even dip it in plastic, mount it on a nice plaque, and hang in over the fireplace. Then when telling the story to their grandchildren they could point to the hunk of nose with pride.
The assassin's eyes were almost bulging out of his head. Blood poured from his nose and down the front of his face, spurting slightly at the beat of his heart. Wang moved the still-spinning knives closer to the assassin's face, then began to lower them slowly.
"Zilla?" Wang said, staring into the assassin's eyes while smiling and lowering the spinning knives toward the man's belt. "Or do I find a piece that look like pork?" Somehow the assassin's eyes got even bigger, then through the blood he sputtered,
"I don't know where Zilla is. But Tanaka does."
Wang backed the spinning knives away slightly and the man sighed, which came out almost like a gargle because of all the blood.
"Tanaka?" Wang asked. "He have another name?"
The problem with the name Tanaka was that it was so common in Japan. Much like Smith or Jones in the United States. Without another name the information would be almost useless.
The assassin again shook his head, spraying blood in all directions. "Only Tanaka."
Wang nodded, discouraged. He could tell the instant a man began to speak the truth. This man was doing so. Of that, there was no doubt. But at least Wang now had one lead to Zilla's location. Now all he had to do was find a first name. Wang turned and started away. "I will let you live," he said, loud enough for the assassin to hear.
Then, without turning around, Wang flicked both knives underhand and backwards at the assassin.
The knives cut off both ears of the assassin and pinned the man's head between the knives.
Wang laughed to himself. "Assuming someone can stop bleeding."
Wang knew that would not be possible. But the assassin deserved a slow, lingering death. He had broken down and given away his boss. There was no honor in such cowardly action. Better to die with lips sealed then live with hole in honor. Wang moved back to the Sushi bar and leaned over to look at the two businessmen who stared at the nose on the floor in front of them. "You can finish lunch now," Wang said. "Speak well of me to grandchildren."
The businessmen both nodded, but didn't stand. Wang turned and headed for the front door and the busy New York City streets. This time he would go the extra two blocks to China Town before stopping for lunch. And meat first. No soup. Just in case he was interrupted again by another group of assassins who wanted a piece of Wang.
With prose like this, it's amazing the Booker Prize went to anything else!
(Although it is still better than Command and Conquer: Tiberium Wars...)
Despite trying far, far too hard to get attention, Shadow Warrior didn't sell anything like as well as 3D Realms hoped. There were three expansion packs from various places, although only two of them made it out and none of them were released commercially. Even at its release, Build was in an uncomfortable position, being light-years ahead of Doom-level engines, but visibly creaking at the seams next to the full 3D of games like Quake and Terminator: Future Shock. Luckily, 3D Realms knew this, and it had a Plan.
Shadow Warrior hit the web on May 13th, 1997.
But on April 28th, Duke Nukem Forever had already been announced. For 1998.